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Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul expanded its intake center for people applying for visas to travel, study or do business in America. This room once had only five service windows. Now it has 14.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul expanded its intake center for people applying for visas to travel, study or do business in America. This room once had only five service windows. Now it has 14. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

SEOUL — The perception among some South Koreans gearing up for an overseas vacation sounds a little like this: London, no problem. Sydney, no problem. San Francisco? Could be a problem, one that could include a long wait, a hefty bill and, worse, rejection for a travel visa.

Worries like these hover among the hundreds of Koreans who line up outside of the U.S. Embassy here each workday to apply for a visa to visit, study or do business in the United States. The long lines, the $100 application fee and the pressure of proving the trip is a vacation and not a migration all can make for a wearisome visit.

Embassy officials acknowledge some of the frustrations and preconceived notions about applying for a U.S. visa, and they say they’re working to combat both.

“We’d like to change that perception,” said Michael Kirby, the consul general at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “Our process is complicated, but not difficult.”

To bolster that argument, the embassy has opened an expanded intake center — with more windows with scanners to enter a person’s application into the system — for people applying for non-immigrant visas.

Last year, the number of Koreans who applied for visas to overseas countries increased by more than 25 percent, Kirby said. But the number of South Koreans seeking permission to visit America dropped 7.6 percent, he said. And the U.S. Consulate in Seoul lost its No. 1 ranking among all American embassies for number of visa applications handled, according to a State Department spokesman.

Still, plenty of South Koreans are traveling to the States. South Koreans are the third-largest group of college students studying in the United States, behind China and India. Add the fact that South Koreans spend $2,000, on average, while visiting the States, and U.S. officials want to ensure the visa application process goes smoothly, Kirby said.

Last Tuesday, the embassy reviewed a total of 1,871 applications, including those of 1,745 people who came for interviews. Of those, 3.3 percent — about 60 people — were denied, Kirby said.

Kirby is pushing other changes, in addition to the expanded intake center, in an effort to streamline the process.

South Koreans no longer have to provide paperwork (marriage and birth certificates, banking information and other documents) in English, but can submit copies in Hangul instead. And soon, people 55 and older will be able to apply for a visa without an appointment.

The embassy already contracts with a company to provide an online application service that is required to start the entire process. Prospective travelers can find a link at the embassy’s Web site and begin filling out the paperwork, which is required to get an appointment. Starting this week, South Koreans also will be able to provide the initial information by phone. Kirby also is hoping to add another $63,000 X-ray machine to get more people screened.

Two South Korean travel agents last week said they thought the U.S. application process has gotten better in recent months, at least in some respects.

The ability to submit documents written in Hangul rather than English has proved helpful, said Jung Sul-hee from Doctor Visa, a Seoul-based travel agency. And small things, like putting heaters outside last winter for customers lined up in the elements, improved the wait for some, said Kim Sang-hyun with Mirae Tour.

But collecting tax documents and bank statements for clients and filling out the U.S.-required paperwork still can be difficult, said both agents, who charge about $150 to help someone prepare the paperwork and get ready for the interview.

Other countries, such as England and Australia, don’t require extensive paperwork, the interview or the travel visa itself, both travel agents said Wednesday. Because of that, and the expense of getting a visa, many South Koreans opt to vacation in countries other than the United States, Jung and Kim said.

It’s just this trend that Kirby is hoping to combat.

“We’re really trying to get some of these people back to thinking about traveling to the U.S.,” he said.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.


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